Respectful Insolence

Remember about a week ago, when I lamented how scientific publisher Elsevier had created a fake journal for Merck that reprinted content from other Elsevier journals favorable to Merck products in a format that looked every bit like a peer-reviewed journal but without any disclaimers to let the unwary know that it wasn’t a peer-reviewed journal?

Whoops, Elsevier did it again. Six times:

Scientific publishing giant Elsevier put out a total of six publications between 2000 and 2005 that were sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies and looked like peer reviewed medical journals, but did not disclose sponsorship, the company has admitted.

Elsevier is conducting an “internal review” of its publishing practices after allegations came to light that the company produced a pharmaceutical company-funded publication in the early 2000s without disclosing that the “journal” was corporate sponsored.

The allegations involve the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, a publication paid for by pharmaceutical company Merck that amounted to a compendium of reprinted scientific articles and one-source reviews, most of which presented data favorable to Merck’s products. The Scientist obtained two 2003 issues of the journal — which bore the imprint of Elsevier’s Excerpta Medica — neither of which carried a statement obviating Merck’s sponsorship of the publication.

So far this appears to have occurred only in Australia–that we know of. I still can’t help but wonder whether other divisions of Elsevier other than the the one in Australia have engaged in this deceptive practice. Once again, I can’t emphasize just how bad this looks for Elsevier. We expect drug companies to do whatever they can to try to sell their products. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature. However, a publishing house that publishes peer-reviewed scientific literature is expected, well, to publish peer-reviewed scientific literature. Such behavior as that of Elsevier risks turning its journals into advertising arms of the pharmaceutical companies. Even if these six journals are all there is, and this is, as the company claims, an “isolated” incident that no longer happens, the stain on Elsevier’s reputation is dark and deep. Even worse, Elsevier has provided yet more ammunition for the enemies of scientific medicine.

Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    May 11, 2009

    You don’t set up an entire sleazy, cherry-picked, exerpts-printed-to-look-like-journals division (see http://www.excerptamedica.com/ ) just to print 6.

    I’m guessing that many a discovery is still waiting to be made.

  2. #2 Joe
    May 11, 2009

    Orac wrote “It is not clear that even if these six journals are all there is, and this is, as the company claims, an “isolated” incident that no longer happens, the stain on Elsevier’s reputation is dark and deep.”

    Elsevier is a whore. Those six “journals” are not exceptions.

  3. #3 chezjake
    May 11, 2009

    I’m not sure what’s going on today, but back in the ’60s and ’70s Elsevier had a flourishing business in setting up and publishing “symposia” on very specific topics that were actually sponsored and programmed by pharmaceutical companies. They basically amounted to single issue journals that *looked* like they were peer reviewed but had no review at all. Example: I remember a 1969 “symposium on systemic Pseudomonas infections” that was sponsored by Beecham (now part of Glaxo, et al.) to coincide with their introduction of carbenicillin.

  4. #4 Whitecoat tales
    May 11, 2009

    On the bright side. This may help the open access movement.

  5. #5 Emp
    May 11, 2009

    The fact that this happened is truly deplorable and will undoubtedly stoke the woo-meisters’ fire. But it’s good that the facts have come out. That’s one of the best things about science: it is self-correcting. A fallacy cannot stand unchallenged forever, since it will eventually be revealed when other researchers are unable to replicate bogus studies or conflicts of interest are uncovered.

    Still, a sad day for medicine.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    May 11, 2009

    Elsevier is a whore.

    A little respect for the ladies, please.

  7. #7 Lora
    May 11, 2009

    This is one of those times when I really wish Legal would let us talk outside the Official Company PR machine: After reading this post, I just had to go look and see if any of those were, FSM forbid, sponsored by my employer. By some miracle, my Big Pharma employer views such stunts as beneath them, and won’t even let the library purchase subscriptions to such nonsense. We’re pretty big, #5 in the world, and nevertheless all we ever get when it comes to publications is a lecture about doing just one more experiment so it can make Nature Junior instead of Biotech & Bioeng. Go figure.

    Of course, you’d never confuse our ads for a Summer’s Eve or Kohler bath fixtures commercial, either, so it seems our marketing department is at least three IQ points smarter than I was giving them credit for.

  8. #8 Chris
    May 11, 2009

    So *that*’s what a pharma shill looks like. No wonder people despise them.

  9. #9 mo
    May 11, 2009

    “We expect drug companies to do whatever they can to try to sell their products. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature.”

    Why must it be that way? Shouldn’t we also expect some ethic behavior from pharma? That you and most others automatically assume those companies have to act that way is a measure for how low THEY have fallen. This accepts unethical behavior by pharma companies when in fact it shouldn’t be accepted.

    When companies sell out ethics for profit, something is wrong, and “capitalism” and “it’s in their nature” are no excuses.

  10. #10 mxh
    May 11, 2009

    Elsevier sucks… this isn’t the first shady thing they’ve done. I’ll try my hardest to send any future manuscripts to open source journals like PLOS or Frontiers in Neuroscience (it feels nice when someone in a third world country can access your papers).

  11. #11 DLC
    May 11, 2009

    The real damage here is that sCAM-ers will point to this as an example of how “Big Pharma” is running the shop.
    when some poor schlub dies because they bought into the scam, Elsevier gets a share of the blame.

  12. #12 Dunc
    May 12, 2009

    Why must it be that way? Shouldn’t we also expect some ethic behavior from pharma? That you and most others automatically assume those companies have to act that way is a measure for how low THEY have fallen. This accepts unethical behavior by pharma companies when in fact it shouldn’t be accepted.

    No, it simply recognises the fact that corporations have a legally-mandated fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value, and they have no equivalent legally-mandated duty to act ethically. They are behaving in a perfectly rational manner, given the rules of the system.

  13. #13 Doug Alder
    May 12, 2009

    nothing new here – Elsevier is lacking in ethics that it has pimped for homeopathy in the past – trying to lend it some scientific respectability, as if there was any possibility it could do so. see the whole Memory of Water incident from 2007

    A special issue of the journal Homeopathy, journal of the Faculty of Homeopathy and published by Elsevier, on the “Memory of Water” brings together scientists from around the world for the first time to publish new data, reviews and discuss recent scientific work exploring the idea that water can display memory effects. The concept of memory of water is important to homeopathy because it offers a potential explanation of the mechanism of action of very high dilutions often used in homeopathy.

    Shameless – Bad Science – took them to task for it at the time as well.

  14. #14 Pieter B
    May 12, 2009

    I’m having an Inigo Montoya moment here:

    neither of which carried a statement obviating Merck’s sponsorship of the publication

    “Obviate” does not mean “make obvious.” I’d complain at The Scientist but I don’t feel like registering just to leave a philological nitpick.

  15. #15 Aubrey Blumsohn
    May 12, 2009

    Emp (comment 5) writes “….That’s one of the best things about science: it is self-correcting. A fallacy cannot stand unchallenged forever, since it will eventually be revealed when other researchers are unable to replicate bogus studies…”

    This is a truly deplorable incident.

    However just to take up the above comment, the problem is that this is not really true in many parts of medicine. Scientific fraud is almost never discovered via lack of reproducibility. No one is really going to replicate a $500 million study of Procter and Gamble’s drug Actonel (given the bone remit of the first faked Journal).

    So unless

    a) an insider points out (here) that findings presented are fake or false and that authors have lied, or

    b) if documents are forced out of companies in litigation

    they stand uncorrected and studies are not and cannot be repeated except very indirectly. That is exactly why these companies should not be allowed to maintain the study databases in clinical trials in any way – there are just too many examples of cheating.

  16. #16 Paul Murray
    May 12, 2009

    We expect drug companies to do whatever they can to try to sell their products. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature

    And that – the notion that it’s ok for companies to conduct themselves amorally and against the public interest – is a big part of the problem.

    I say: delist the bad corporate citizens.

  17. #17 Tracy W
    May 13, 2009

    And that – the notion that it’s ok for companies to conduct themselves amorally and against the public interest

    Well we don’t *know* what the public interest is. This is not a scientific question. A lot of people have strong opinions about what is in the public interest, but those opinions are often conflicting more or less dramatically – from minor differences of opinion about the trade-off between liberty and protecting people from their own mistakes, to drastic differences such as in the abortion debate. There are also inconsistences within policy, for example in NZ most people apparently both want the government to do something about climate change, and don’t want to change their own life styles. So you get government policy statements that say things like “No new fossil fuel power stations will be built, unless necessary for security of supply”.
    Now how is a power company expected to translate that instruction into the public interest? How do you tell if an investment is necessary for security of supply? Is it more in the public interest to reduce carbon emissions or to prevent poor grannies from freezing whenever there is a dry winter and the hydro plants can’t run? We have enough problems making this decision as a society, companies have no individual expertises in making those decisions.

    In the case of public companies, there are conflicting incentives as well. Many people invest in public companies in order to save for things like their retirement, or their children’s education, things that most of us think are good things. If all the money disappears because the public companies’ directors are pursuing pipe dreams, governments are put under political pressure from people who lost their life-savings. So they pass laws to force the particular duty of acting in the fiduciary interests of the shareholders.
    Now the government could pass a law requiring companies to both follow commonly-accepted ethical practices and to act in the fiduciary interests of the shareholders, but the problem is that when you expect people to act according to two different sets of objectives, they can blame any failure to achieve one objective on the requirement to serve the other objective. You’ve made monitoring the company much harder, and you’ve set up a future problem if people’s retirement savings disappear. And of course you can add to this the profound disagreement about what ethics requires on many topics.

    There are no easy answers here.

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